Is Malaysia a failed state?

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Daniel Moss clearly struck a raw nerve when he suggested in an opinion piece that Malaysia is stumbling towards failed statehood (Bloomberg, 8th July 2021). Academics weighed in with a discussion on what constitutes a failed state. The opposition seized upon it to beat up on the government. Government ministers were defensive and dismissive. To a weary public, however, the Bloomberg piece said nothing that they themselves have not been saying on social media for some time now.  

There is no doubt that the out-of-control pandemic situation has called into question the government’s ability to manage what is undoubtedly the worst national crisis we’ve faced in the more than half a century of our existence as an independent nation. For the first time in a long time, Malaysians are experiencing real hardship; lives are being upended; hope is fading. 

While the pandemic and the terrible toll it is taking on our nation is understandably grabbing all the headlines, the reality is that we have been ailing for some time now. The pandemic has merely exposed the deep flaws and strains within our society and the fundamental contradictions that have premised our statehood. The seeds of decay and decline are already everywhere evident. 

Our democracy, for one, is in tatters. It didn’t start with the Sheraton Move and the overthrow of a popularly elected government; the rot started when Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister in 1981. He inherited a nation pregnant with promise and left it, after 22 agonizingly long years in office, terribly divided, corrupt and rudderless. He stoked the fires of ethnonationalism that destroyed our sense of common citizenship and unity. He foisted upon the nation a series of mediocre leaders who took the country further and further down the road to ruin. The backdoor government that now sits in Putrajaya is just Mahathir’s chickens coming home to roost.

That such an inept, self-serving and politically bankrupt bunch of politicians could take the reins of power in one of Asia’s most promising democracies must surely shake the confidence of even the most optimistic observer. About the only good thing that can be said about it is that it has exposed the absolute inanity of a political framework based on nothing more than base jingoism.

And then there is the grim reality of corruption. One has only to read local media reports to know that almost all our national institutions and government departments are compromised.  We used to think that corrupt officials were few and far between, but it may be nearer the truth to assume that honest men and women are the exception today. We are a grand kleptocracy now, a nation of cartels, syndicates, cronies and robber barons posing as politicians. The battle against corruption is over and we’ve lost. 

Consider as well where the nation is headed as a result of the Wahhabi takeover of the education system, the bureaucracy and other national institutions. The intense but quiet indoctrination that has been going on in our universities and across the entire machinery of government has already fundamentally transformed the religious, political and social landscape. The recent episode in which the famed classical dancer Ramli Ibrahim was barred from speaking at a university ought to have served as yet another wake-up call but it did not. We are sleepwalking into an Islamic state.

In the meantime, our universities continue to churn out thousands of graduates each year who are quite literally unemployable. They do not have the right skills set that the market demands and so are consigned to more menial endeavours. What will happen when the pent-up frustration of all these young graduates reaches breaking point? To compound matters, thousands of skilled professionals are leaving, exacerbating the shortage of the very expertise and talent we need to grow the economy, attract foreign investment and remain competitive. Does anybody care?

These are but a few examples of the malaise that is gnawing at the fibre of our nation. They are not aberrations; they are signs of system failure. Destructive and divisive narratives about race and religion together with self-defeating race-based policies have taken their toll. We are now at a critical juncture; merely reopening Parliament or even holding fresh elections are unlikely to result in the kind of structural changes that are needed. 

It is not that we are without solutions. We are not some banana republic without the skills, the experience or the capacity to solve our problems. Just look at all the blueprints, the studies and the proposals on issues like education reform, fighting corruption, political financing, transparency in procurement, police accountability, etc., that are already on the table. But they all go nowhere because at the top of the pyramid sits a class of obdurate, self-centred and corrupt politicians that are determined to resist change. They created this exploitative and abusive system for their own benefit; they are determined to keep it going for as long as they can.

In the run-up to the last election, there was much talk about how we were teetering on the brink of failure.  The sense of urgency then was such that it galvanized Malaysians like never before to press for change. For a few months we stood on the cusp of hope, but treachery both from within and without shattered those dreams. Now we are a nation adrift, caught in the throes of a terrible pandemic and a failing system. Malaysia is not yet a failed state but the descent has already begun.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 28th July 2021